FORT MYERS, Fla. – So much has been made about how the Boston Red Sox have charted a course toward a low-scoring, defense-minded squad in 2010. Pitching is a definite strength on this team, and there’s no question the Sox have improved their fielding.

But what about offense? Will they score enough runs to compete in the rough and tumble American League East?

David Ortiz could provide the biggest answer to that question. This is still Big Papi’s team and come April 4, it will be Big Papi’s offense — now, more than ever.

”When you play in this position you need some run producers,” said Ortiz. ”No question about it. There’s good pitching in this division, and you see the best of the best every night.”

Ortiz held his own against the best for much of his first six seasons in Boston, but last spring he had the worst two-month stretch of his career. His swagger was gone, and so was his production. By the end of May, the man who set the team’s single-season home run record (54 in 2006) had hit just one ball out of the park.

”I had nightmares for two months,” said Ortiz. ”Even when you wake up you still feel like you were in a nightmare.”

The nightmare could’ve gotten worse. Many managers might have benched Ortiz, but Terry Francona stuck with his man and was paid off with 27 homers from Big Papi over the final four months of the season.

”To run away from David at the end of May wouldn’t have helped us,” said Francona. ”We would’ve missed what he did.

”There’s a difference between being loyal and doing what’s right for the ballclub. I think it was the right thing to do.”

Clearly, Ortiz was stung by what he described as negativity from fans and media last year. In July, the New York Times reported that Ortiz was among 104 players who had tested positive in 2003 for performance-enhancing drugs. In a press conference several days later, Ortiz was adamant he did not use steroids.

He believes surviving last year will help him reclaim his spot as one of the game’s most feared power hitters.

”I think people gave up on me too early, too fast,” said Ortiz. ”They started talking about age, all that stuff. You listen for a minute, it’s the same people who were clapping for you before.

”Last season was an experience for me. At the end of the season when I went to my house, I was proud of myself because there are not too many people who know how to bounce back from the hole I dug myself.”

Ortiz appears in the best shape of his Red Sox career. After getting his mind together midway through 2009, he used the offseason to rebuild physically and refocus for what could be his last season in Boston.

”I asked myself how I bounced back. I stayed strong and stayed away from all that negativity,” he said.

”I definitely know that bouncing back like I did last year gave me more confidence and made me stronger for this year.”

Ortiz reminded everyone on Monday he has never started well. This season he might not have that luxury. The Sox need his production and with Mike Lowell sitting (for now) without a position, they’ll need Big Papi to drive in runs.

Opening day is still a long way off, but Ortiz feels he already has come a long way from last season’s devastating start.

 

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.